Unschooling Critical Pedagogy, Unfixing Schools

by John E. Petrovic (Author)
©2019 Textbook X, 170 Pages


Though conservatives and criticalists perhaps espouse different values and social assumptions as rationale for reforming schools, they both seek to "fix" schools. Unschooling Critical Pedagogy, Unfixing Schools argues that in this move to fix, they both either deny or misread the material dimension of schooling, thereby unnecessarily limiting possibilities for human flourishing within educational environments. In order to unfix schools, making them dynamic and critical places of engagement, educators must review and revive their critical roots through Marx to overcome the educational necrophilia that has simply overwhelmed schools through the material conditions both within and without. Critical pedagogy is insufficient for such a project, with some iterations of it becoming errors of commission. Moving from Marx to Althusser to Illich, Unschooling Critical Pedagogy, Unfixing Schools concludes with a recommendation for unschooling in schools which requires getting students out of schools as much as possible.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Unschooling Critical Pedagogy, Unfixing Schools
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Unschooling Critical Pedagogy and Unfixing Education
  • Chapter 1. Fixing Education
  • Chapter 2. Unfixing Education with Critical Pedagogy
  • Chapter 3. Critical Pedagogy within an Ideological State Apparatus
  • Chapter 4. Unschooling Against the Ideological State Apparatus
  • Chapter 5. Unschooling in and out of Schools
  • Chapter 6. Authenticity, Identity Politics, and Critical Pedagogy
  • References
  • Index

← vi | vii →


This book builds on several previous works, which are reproduced to varying degrees. I am grateful to Sage, Taylor & Francis, and Springer Publishing for permission to reuse those articles in this way. Specifically, Chapter 3 adds to Petrovic and Kuntz (2018) and Kuntz and Petrovic (2018). Chapter 4 owes to Petrovic and Rolstad (2017). Chapter 5 borrows again from Kuntz and Petrovic (2018).

In addition to acknowledging our previous work together, I need to thank Aaron Kuntz for our many conversations that went toward the development of this larger project. His insights into connecting, as an example, Marx and Althusser to the new materialism that is the thrust of his current work were invaluable.

I am also grateful to Cindy Jones who dutifully and carefully proofread each chapter. She also took the lead in the tedium of putting together the index.

In the end, I must dedicate this project to my children, Sophie and Lucas, who would have liked nothing more than the permission to resist more forcefully than they did the process of being schooled. ← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 →


Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.—Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Often, in mainstream and scholarly publications alike, one encounters proclamations of the need to fix education. Though authors, politicians, and policy analysts may begin from radically different political and philosophical positions, they often similarly point to a broken educational system. For some, schooling does not do enough to maintain an economically productive citizenry, failing to promote students with the technical skills needed to meet the needs of the world order. For others, contemporary educational systems serve only to reinscribe dangerous neoliberal models, failing to instill a critical sensibility in students and constraining opportunities for social change. Still others perhaps point to the inherent dangers within the school walls themselves—the means by which students are made more vulnerable to a massifying education when they walk through the schoolhouse door.1

In other words, both conservative and critical pedagogues (and others in between) strive to reform an institutional system that, through its very ← 1 | 2 → formation, enacts a limiting effect on student potential. That said, let me not beat around the bush and note that I begin from the premise that, even some eighty years on, it is the case that Counts’ (1932) claim that “almost everywhere [the existing school] is in the grip of conservative forces” continues to describe the manufactured status quo. This is, of course, not an uncontested assertion, as exemplified by E. D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need. Yet interestingly, both critical and conservative approaches to schooling proclaim rather similar goals: Both Counts earlier and Hirsch now seek a more democratic, equal, and fair social order, albeit from radically different foundations and, ultimately, it must be said, radically different visions of “democracy.” Beyond the similarity of such foundations (at least rhetorically), these groups share a fundamental flaw in their idealist vision of “just” schooling. Though conservatives and criticalists perhaps espouse different values and social assumptions as rationale for reforming schools, they both seek to “fix” schools. This volume walks through the theoretical and philosophical foundations of unfixing schools, ending with some recommendations as to how to engage such a project.

I will argue that in the move to fix, criticalists and conservatives either deny or misread the material dimension of schooling, thereby unnecessarily limiting possibilities for human flourishing within educational environments. On the one hand, criticalists seem to have lost the thread of how to engage the problem practically. This, too, requires analytical reengagement—as I will point out in Chapter 2. On the other hand, conservatives fail or refuse to engage the problem analytically, at least from analytic frames that promote the basic Liberal ideals they claim to hold. Their perennial alarm about “progressive” or “liberal” schools suggests that they would like to reclaim traditional formations of social order through “innovative” pedagogical practices aimed at producing a docile and individual-centric citizenry. However, as I will argue, the contemporary conservative agenda simply accelerates and amplifies the economic values and rationale that have driven principles of schooling for decades. Thus, through their denial of the material dimension of schools, conservatives exacerbate the reproduction of existing social relations, embracing a deep and problematic indoctrination into a free market, corporate ideology.

Hirsch (1996), for example, argues that naturalistic principles that undergird child-centered education are fundamentally flawed and freedom should be replaced with the promotion of grade level readiness driven by national standards with particularly defined outcomes and monitoring through specific accountability arrangements to include testing, external and enforceable ← 2 | 3 → incentives, and sanctions (pp. 227–229). In such conservative thinking, denying freedom somehow promotes a more freely developed and sustainable individual. Such educational futurism—educating students for future needs of society as opposed to children’s own present interests and needs—is highly problematic by its own goals. For it is an education of conformity, education for the collective, not the individual. In this way, Hirsch, and conservatives generally, performs a contemporary brand of Orwellian double-speak.

On the other hand, according to Counts, critically inclined progressives rightly “focused attention squarely upon the child, recognized the fundamental importance of the interest of the learner, defended the thesis that activity lies at the root of all true education, conceived learning in terms of life situations and growth of character, and have championed the rights of the child as free personality” (pp. 5–6). Nevertheless, progressive education lacked critical direction for Counts and he, like Hirsch, criticized progressive education for its “extreme freedom” (p. 10), a critique that questioned how individually focused freedoms might give rise to the collective-spirit necessary for social justice work. I have noted elsewhere (Petrovic, 1998) that Hirsch is simply wrong in the way that he characterizes the notion of freedom as employed by democratic progressives (such as John Dewey, Hirsch’s primary target in this vein). Notice, however, that Counts provides a very different rationale in his critique of progressive freedom. For Counts, progressive education became a form of hyperindividuality (and, hence, conservative) and did not emphasize enough the need to educate for conviviality, to educate toward living within a collective society. Unlike conservative education—which, in fact, does not even recognize the collectivity problem—the critique from Counts’ perspective is in regard to a lack of balance.

Drawing on critical theory, contemporary criticalists, of course, have sought to provide such balance through a focus on social justice. Even so, freedom or the lack thereof must remain a concern within contemporary schools. Essentially, the approaches of conservative schooling and critical pedagogy mis-present the material context of schooling to such an extent that their respective philosophical approaches to education become contradictory, failing the promises for social change. As I have tried to intimate, this “failing” is reasonably straightforward in regard to conservatives but requires a more complicated explanation vis-à-vis criticalists.

As such, through this book, I consider the material dimensions of schooling as constitutive of the possibilities inherent in “fixing” education. In education, the infinite loop of invoking the necessity of change in the abstracted, ← 3 | 4 → amaterialist language of reform often leads to feeling overwhelmed by the impact of social diagnosis—that radical changes to education can never outpace the propensity for schooling to reinscribe contemporary ideology. “Fixing” education remains bound to the very logic formations that rendered schooling a recognizable problem. Like the many critics who come before me, I begin with an assumption that contemporary formations of education do not produce an engaged and deliberative democracy. At the same time, I remain concerned that the very corrective measures intended to improve education reinscribe those values, practices, and common sense that I believe got us in to this mess from the beginning. Thus it is that critics of education—whether conservative, liberal, or progressive in espoused politics—do a disservice to the radical possibilities of education: they fix it to death.


X, 170
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 170 pp., 3 b/w ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

John E. Petrovic (Author)

John E. Petrovic is Professor and Program Coordinator for the Social and Cultural Studies Concentration in the College of Education at The University of Alabama. He earned his PhD from University of Colorado in foundations of education, specializing in philosophy and policy studies. He has been President of the Southeast Philosophy of Education Society and Secretary of the American Educational Studies Association. He has served on several editorial boards including those of the American Educational Research Journal, International Multilingual Research Journal, and Thresholds in Education. He is Executive Editor of Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education. He is author of A Post-liberal Approach to Language Policy (2015) and his recent edited volumes include Indigenous Philosophies of Education Around the World (co-edited with Roxanne Mitchell, 2018) and Citizenship Education Around the World: Local Contexts and Global Possibilities (co-edited with Aaron Kuntz, 2014). Petrovic teaches courses on multicultural education, language policy, and philosophy of education.


Title: Unschooling Critical Pedagogy, Unfixing Schools